Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed five bills to address human trafficking and the rape kit backlog, but time will tell how the bills will affect Parker County.
House Bill 8 aims to clear up the state’s backlog of untested rape kits. Sexual assault victims participate in the exams, so evidence related to the assault can be collected. The bill, authored by Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, and sponsored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, directs that the number, location and status of all filed rape kits be audited by the state.
Also, HB 8 dictates that rape kits be tested within 90 days of receiving evidence and eliminates the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases in which the evidence hasn’t been forensically tested.
State funding, about $54 million, is set aside in the budget to train rape kit examiners, Nelson told the Texas Tribune earlier this week.
Advocates of sexual assault survivors have seen this kind of legislation before in Texas, but this one is different, Freedom House Sexual Assault Program Manager Pamela Donnelly said.
“This one is wonderful, something that’s been needed for some time,” Donnelly said.
Having the evidence from a rape kit can open closed cases in which the perpetrator is a serial rapist, Donnelly said. Sometimes the kit hasn’t been tested by the time the case goes to trial.
Implementing the bill and figuring out those details may take time moving forward, Donnelly said.
“They’re still working through the process, so hopefully, that’s been done, but it may still be in the process of fine-tuning it because it’s complicated, it’s a complicated thing,” Donnelly said.
The way the process works is a victim is examined in a hospital and the evidence is sent to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner, Weatherford Police Chief Lance Arnold said. The police department receives the results from the tested rape kit but never has the exam contents itself, Arnold said.
The process may take a few months, but there is no backlog at WPD, Arnold said. In terms of sexual assault, WPD sees an average of about 15-30 cases per year, though not all of those cases require a rape kit. In some instances, a victim may not want to participate in the exam.
“It’s a fairly invasive procedure, as you can imagine,” Arnold said. “There may be some victims that choose not to do that for probably pretty valid reasons.”
WPD audits all sexual assault investigations at least yearly, which helps the department stay efficient, Arnold said. The audit includes a panel of some civilian personnel.
“I realize it’s not the same everywhere,” Arnold said. “I’m sure some rural areas, things like that, that may not have the same access that we do, to our lab facilities that we use or to the [sexual assault examination] nurses, so that certainly can be problematic, so anything we can do to help the process improve and really try to do all we can do to get the appropriate justice for any victims of a crime like that is worthwhile.”
Senate Bill 20 and HB 2613 both tackle human trafficking. SB 20 aims to increase penalties for people involved with online human trafficking and is supposed to help victims seal their criminal records. HB 2613 makes operating a stash house for human trafficking or prostitution a crime.
Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler said there haven’t been signs of human trafficking going on in the county, but the sheriff’s office would address these cases if they became aware of it. Fowler said the sheriff’s office is constantly monitoring these situations.
“Anytime that the legislature gives us another tool for our toolbox, it’s much appreciated,” Fowler said.
Fowler also said sealing and regaining control of the Texas-Mexico border could help combat human trafficking.
“There’s no telling what is coming across that border,” Fowler said.
All of these signed bills are planned to be effective starting on Sept. 1.